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Edward Wadsworth, 1889–1949
Former Title(s):

Sea Verge

Objects on the Foreshore

Sea-verge--tempera [1945, Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhibition catalogue]
Materials & Techniques:
Tempera on board
25 x 35 inches (63.5 x 88.9 cm)

Signed and dated, lower left: "WADSWORTH 1943"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Copyright Status:
Copyright Undetermined
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
beach | coat | hanging | hooks | landscape | net | ocean | rope | sand | seascape | seashore | sky | Surrealist | wheel
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

Through the careful arrangement of everyday objects to be found on the seashore, Wadsworth creates a mood of strangeness and unease. His painting achieves a dream­like atmosphere, enhanced by the infinities of sea and sky behind, and shows a clear kinship with the international Surrealist movement, although he never exhibited with that group. Painted at the height of World War Two, when history itself was taking horrifyingly Surrealistic turns, the work evokes British fears of a German inva­sion. The seashore (Wadsworth’s favorite source of sub­ject matter since his early career) takes on a new signifi­cance and an aura of doom. It is probably no accident that the hanging objects—empty coats, an empty net—suggest a gallows or modern-day Crucifixion.
The allusions to traditional subjects that Wadsworth worked into his modern imagery were given force by a deliberate archaism of technique. From the late 1920s he disdained oil paints and worked in egg tempera. The luminosity of the present work, whose colors seem to emanate from within, results from his use of carefully hand-mixed tempera colors applied thinly over gesso. His nearly pointilliste brush strokes combine with the vibrant colors of the tempera to impart an internal light and movement; when used to depict such fixed, immobile objects, this creates an eerie dissonance. His love and respect for this difficult, time-consuming technique stemmed from his early career, when he spent a brief time helping to restore the Mantegna cartoons at Hamp­ton Court, and from his subsequent trips to Italy, where he was awed by the beauties of Giotto, Benozzo Gozzoli, and especially Fra Angelico. By the time the present work was painted, he had become one of the leading experts in Britain on the practice of egg-tempera paint­ing; his lifelong sparring correspondence with Maxwell Armfield was based almost entirely on an ongoing dis­cussion of tempera and its use. Wadsworth’s stringent defense of this medium placed him outside the main­stream of contemporary art, although around 1940 officials of the Royal Academy began to approach him with the possiblity of his becoming a member, an honor he regarded with some suspicion.
Despite the respect accorded him by most of his fellow artists and the favor shown him by the Royal Academy, Wadsworth never achieved his patriotic ambition of becoming an Official War Artist. Although the reasons were never officially articulated, it is clear that his name had been consistently omitted from the rosters of war artists because of his personal ties to Germany. In March 1934 his daughter Barbara had married a Bavarian and been forced, by law, to renounce her British citizenship. She and her husband had intended to become naturalized British citizens, but the outbreak of war had prevented this, and in 1940 they had to register as enemy aliens, she in her own country. Wadsworth’s fate as an artist became inextricably linked with this event, and he was forever thwarted in his efforts to become a war artist. In 1940he was officially denied even a sketching permit, a disap­pointment which affected him both emotionally and artistically. Only two years later, having enlisted the aid of the Duke of Devonshire, was he finally allowed to join the war effort, not as an artist but as a member of the Home Guard.
Seen in the light of his complex relation­ship with the artistic and political establishments of the early 1940s, Sea-Verge conjures not only the sense of overwhelming national unease but also, in its evocation of emptiness, the artist’s personal disappointments. The strange sus­pension of once essential, now disused objects displayed in an airless, frieze-like manner suggests the melancholic stoppage of everyday life that results from war and pre­sents an image of the vestiges of life literally hanging in the balance.

Julia Marciari-Alexander

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 192, no. 80, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

Revisiting Traditions [BAC 20th century painting & sculpture] (Yale Center for British Art, 2002-04-30 - 2005-05-18) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Bloomsbury Contemporaries (Yale Center for British Art, 2000-05-20 - 2000-09-03) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

20th Century Paintings and Sculpture (Yale Center for British Art, 2000-01-27 - 2000-04-30) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Jonathan Black, Edward Wadsworth, form, feeling and calculation : the complete paintings and drawings , Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd, London New York, 2005, p. 203, no. 424, NJ18 W114 A12 B53 2005 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden : Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 192, no. 80, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Barbara Wadsworth, Edward Wadsworth, a painter's life , Michael Russell, London, 1989, pp. 341-42, App 2, no. 240, NJ18 W114 W24 1989 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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